I had a bit of a blast from the past yesterday at a meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to unveil -or perhaps, given the enthusiasm of the presenter, unleash- a new mantra/mission statement/motto thingy. You know the sort of thing: a phrase that is supposed to provide internal and external clarity of purpose to an organisation. For instance – Nokia: Connecting People. Now I can’t reveal the specific phrase in question, because there are probably web applications set up to monitor the use of the phrase and alert the organisation in question. In short I can’t tell you, because I will get a figurative cap in my ass for it. Unfortunately for you then, the next paragraphs will have the flavour of ‘you had to be there when he told that funny joke which I can’t recall right now’, but bear with me.

What happened was this. The phrase was unleashed, and those of us assembled were asked to free-associate with it, to masticate the words in the jaws of our brains, and to come up with what the phrase signified for us. Much as I would like to make the claim for myself that I was being consciously subversive when I was the first person to put my hand up with an answer, I was not. No: it was a reflex action from schooldays, a habit borne not out of a desire to please the teacher as such, but of the fact that I find dazed silences hard to bear. In the particular case of meetings such as these, it is also because I feel sorry for the individual who has to marshal enthusiasm for the exercise, when everyone -deep down- knows, (or at least this is what I like to think, since I have some faith in human nature) that what is being discussed is arrant nonsense with scarce relation to wider reality.

Hand aloft, I gave my interpretation of the phrase, elaborating a meaning to the phrase that was almost the precise opposite of its intended meaning. Again, I regret the lack of specifics, but imagine a short snappy phrase that says something like ‘we strive to be great at doing great things for people’, but you can interpret it to mean ‘we strive to shaft people in a manner most excellent’.

People laughed. The presenter -who also laughed, but I could sense his discomfort- said, yes, you’re right. And would you believe.. I’ve been going round the world presenting this, and you’re the first person to notice that.

And then he said ‘I guess it must be the Paddy effect’.

The Paddy effect. I realised once he said this that I’d caused the whole point of his trip to unravel. I imagine he felt like a conductor whose symphony had been ruined by a bout of uncontrollable farting from the audience at the beginning. Any further free-association and elaboration on the meaning of the phrase -which I now realised was intended to result in the air being punched with enthusiasm and maybe some sort of collective hug- had been prefigured by the explicit realisation that, in fact, what we were talking about was also a load of crap.

Still. The Paddy effect. That wasn’t very nice, was it? About half the people in the room were Irish, and the meeting was in Ireland, so I didn’t think there was any need to pass any remarks about it other than ‘I doubt a ‘Paddy effect’ comes into it, because it’s written there in plain English and everyone else here understands what I mean’.

Like the catchphrase, though, there are different ways of interpreting the remark. My initial thoughts were that he was slightly humiliated, so he decided to return the humiliation to the source of it: the ‘Paddy’. But then I thought that maybe he thought that there is nothing wrong with referring to Irish people as ‘Paddies’: in Dublin, for instance, there is a tourist bus service called ‘Paddywagon Tours’, and the Irish edition of the Sun (it may have been in the English version as well) produced the headline ‘Paddy Power’ to describe the outcome of the Irish Lisbon Treaty referendum. The common phrase ‘Plastic Paddy’, used to describe someone who makes a show of ersatz Irishness, might be interpreted to mean that there are authentic Paddies out there. Maybe he thought that Irish people like to be called Paddies.

To my ears it sounded pretty anachronistic. I spent a few years in England about a decade ago, and I can only recall being called ‘Paddy’ once. It sounded anachronistic then, too. Perhaps that isn’t saying much, though: I doubt many French people in England get called Frogs to their face, but it appears in the Sun fairly regularly. And if you were to ask your average English Family Fortunes contestant to give a derogatory term for an Irish person, I’m pretty sure ‘Paddy’ would be top of the list (followed by Mick, maybe Leprechaun, and then it’d have to be universal insults prefaced by Irish – Irish bastard, and so on).

Of course, part of the reason some English people feel they can use the word ‘Paddy’ is familiarity. It is the fact of the closeness between Irish and English people -in terms of language as well as physical features- that enables an English person to say ‘the Paddy effect’ where he or she would never say ‘the Paki effect’ or ‘the Dago effect’. But it seems odd, given the history of the term, to think that the act of an English person calling an Irish person ‘Paddy’ could ever be an expression of fraternal affection: it always seems to exist as a means of marking a difference. It says ‘I will represent you as I please (my cuddly subordinate)’.

Isn’t that right, Paddies?

7 Responses to “Paddywhacked”

  1. 1 Longman Oz June 27, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    I think it depends upon the intent behind it really. If someone says it harmlessly, what of it? If someone is trying to insult me, the term itself won’t bother me, but I will want to know “why all the attitude?”

    Perhaps its splitting hairs to say so, but “Mick” sounds more anachronistic to my ear than “Paddy” does…

  2. 2 Hugh Green June 27, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    I’m quite Freudian when it comes to speech acts: we often don’t mean what we say, but at the same time we do mean it. That said, I guess there are also genuine instances where you can say something offensive (and I wasn’t particularly offended here: more amused than anything) without really knowing that there’s anything wrong with what you’re saying. But a lot of the time that sort of ignorance comes from ideas formed within a culture where there’s a general acceptability to looking down on other groups of people, or classifying them as you -and not they- see fit. That’s not something particular to England at all, of course.

    Mick does sound more anachronistic. Which is why it’d come second in Family Fortunes!

  3. 3 Longman Oz June 27, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    To be fair, I did appreciate that this was your central point.

    It reminds me of the time Mary O’Rourke came out with her “working like a black” remark. Clearly she meant no offence to anyone by it, but there was still the storm-in-a-teacup furore over her alleged crassness.

  4. 4 coc June 30, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Maybe it’s best not to over analyse throw away comments like that. The ‘paddy effect’ in his mind was probably just intended to express his admiration at the typically Irish quirkiness of words and language that unexpectedly subverted the (no doubt) super clever motto they had probabaly spent a few hundred grand putting together.

    Your response was merely a lorry full of insight to the Canary Wharf of his marketing genius. No reason for him to be annoyed there at all. No sirree. Mick.

  5. 5 Hugh Green June 30, 2008 at 10:55 am

    Your response was merely a lorry full of insight to the Canary Wharf of his marketing genius.

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to steal that phrase from you for future use.

  6. 6 coc June 30, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    Work away – it’s open source.

  7. 7 lolarusa June 30, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    I don’t know what your workplace is like, but if their motto meetings are anything like the “strategic plan” and “mission statement” meetings I’ve had the misfortune of attending, any comment to the effect that the emperor is naked results in (often unconscious) hostility.

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